The politics of sorrow

David Foster Wallace is best known for his experimental fiction and comic essays, but a strong political current, deeply anarchist in sentiment, runs through his work.

Elliot Murphy
31 August 2015
David Foster Wallace. Flickr/Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.

David Foster Wallace. Flickr/Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.

“I hated childhood
I hate adulthood
And I love being alive.”
Mary Ruefle, “Provenance”, Trances of the Blast

David Foster Wallace is best known for his experimental fiction and comic essays, but a strong political current, deeply anarchist in sentiment, can be detected in works such as Infinite Jest, The Pale King, and his short stories and essays on popular culture. Wallace stood out as a uniquely radical novelist amongst his generation, although since his suicide in 2008 he has often been attacked for his supposedly reactionary politics. In 2012, Bret Easton Ellis tweeted that Wallace was “so needy, so conservative” and “the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation”. Last year, James Santel added in the Hudson Review that Wallace’s supposed conservatism stemmed from his obsession with the theme of loneliness in his writings.

Wallace critics should indeed take note of how he voted for Reagan, but also how his distaste for Bush turned him into something of a radical by the early 2000s. In a 2003 interview with the German TV station ZDF, Wallace deeply resented his country’s involvement in Iraq and, discussing forms of rebellion against US imperialism, said that “the people that I know who are rebelling meaningfully, you know, don’t buy a lot of stuff and don’t get their view of the world from television, and are willing to spend four of five hours researching an election rather than going by commercials. The thing about it is that in America we think of rebellion as this very sexy thing and that it involves action and force. My guess is that the forms of rebellion that will end up changing anything meaningfully here will be very quiet and very individual and probably not all that interesting to look at from the outside”. In 2007, in a piece called “Just Asking” for The Atlantic, Wallace noted how the US has used the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to push through ‘security’ measures which are extremely harmful to the freedom of American citizens.

Wallace was well aware that political action is purely a means to an end, and not an end in itself. In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Wallace exposes how drastically opposed sexual pleasure is with political struggle, even revolutionary struggle. “Brief interview number 14”, dated August 1996, begins as follows: “It’s cost me every sexual relationship I ever had. I don’t know why I do it. I’m not a political person, I don’t consider myself. … I’ll be doing it with some girl, it doesn’t matter who. It’s when I start to come. That it happens. … [W]hen I start to come and always start yelling it it’s not insulting, it’s not obscene, it’s always the same thing, and it’s always so weird but I don’t think insulting. I think it’s just weird. And uncontrolled. It’s like it comes out the same way the spooge comes out, it feels like that. I don’t know what it’s about and I can’t help it. … “Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!” Only way louder. As in really shouting it. Uncontrollably. I’m not even thinking it until it comes out and I hear it. “Victory for the Forces of Democratic Freedom!” Only louder than that: “VICTORY–” … Well it totally freaks them out, what do you think? And I just about die of embarrassment. I don’t ever know what to say. What do you say if you just shouted “Victory for the forces of Democratic Freedom!” right when you came?”

Some of the lines Wallace used in his fiction and essays may seem reactionary on the surface, but as Wallace explains in “Authority and American Usage”: “This reviewer’s own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them”. This rejection of euphemism manifests itself in Wallace’s most well-known novel, Infinite Jest: “[T]o my way of thinking, the word “abuse” is vacuous. Who can define “abuse”? The difficulty with really interesting cases of abuse is that the ambiguity of the abuse becomes part of the abuse”. This level of emotional and intellectual bluntness led the poet Colin Barrett to comment in the Guardian that “Infinite Jest gave me back to myself, and left me with nowhere to hide. I stopped writing my brittle, evasive poems. I began to wonder how on earth you do something like this”.

German translation of Infinite Jest. Flickr/Erasing Scott. Some rights reserved.

German translation of Infinite Jest. Flickr/Erasing Scott. Some rights reserved.

Boredom and black miracles

“The truth will set you free, but not until it’s done with you.”
David Foster Wallace

Wallace, widely considered one of the greatest American writers of his generation, spent his life eager to write what he called “morally passionate” fiction, which he believed at its core is “about what it is to be a fucking human being”, helping readers “become less alone inside”. He believed, as his school teacher had taught him, that the purpose of fiction is to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. He was, to quote Infinite Jest, a “man who was very quiet and broken-seeming and fatherly and strange. There was this kind of broken authority about him”. Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” contains a related biographically-infused opening paragraph:

“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy, somehow. Almost predatory. This is because human situations are writers’ food. Fiction writers watch other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses.”

Infinite Jest also proposes that the world’s objects should be treated and handled as if they were extensions of our own body; much like, Wallace candidly suggests, the economical movements and “animal grace” of Marlon Brando. Wallace’s general ideology can be detected in perhaps his most famous public speech, his 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College:

“Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

By disturbing such comfortable souls, Wallace saw literature as a means to radicalise and confront his readership. He told Charlie Rose that he wrote books to make him happy, but this ironically just made him even unhappier, transitioning him into what his short story “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley” terms an “initiation into true adult sadness”. The way Dom Joly compares his sudden rise to fame to the feeling of being a father in his recent autobiography, Here Comes the Clown, no doubt would have resonated with Wallace: “You know that certain tiny people call you “Dad” and you answer to this moniker but, deep down, you wonder whom they are really talking to … There is a constant sense of being a fraud”.

Unlike George Orwell and numerous other literary figures, Wallace wrote more with sorrow than anger, but this is by no means a shortcoming. The moral passion of Wallace’s politics and personality translated well into all of his major prose works. To take the most obvious example, Infinite Jest is a darkly comic satire of American culture and entertainment. In fictional Boston, even the names of the years have been corporatized, with the action taking place predominantly in the “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment”. Around the time he was writing Infinite Jest, in 1994 Wallace had relatedly described the advertisements at the Illinois State Fair with his standard critical detachment: “One tent says CORN: TOUCHING OUR LIVES EVERY DAY”. The next year he wrote an Esquire essay on the Canadian Open tennis tournament and commented that in order to be a sponsor you have to “supply free stuff to the tournament and put your name on it in really big letters. All the courts’ tall umpire-chairs have a sign that says they’re supplied by TROPICANA”.

Foster Wallace obituary. Flickr/K Parks. Some rights reserved.

Foster Wallace obituary. Flickr/K Parks. Some rights reserved.Discussing these concentrations of media and entertainment power, Wallace told David Lipsky in 1996 that “all of us who grouse, all the anarchists who grouse about power being localized in these media elites, are gonna realize that the actual system dictates that”. Here we see Wallace explicitly aligning himself with a form of political radicalism, but making an important qualification about the standard critique of concentrated power. In his Harper’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”, Wallace also pens the following observation about what the calls the “Professional Smile” in the service sector and world of advertising: “Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? Am I the only person who’s sure that the growing number of cases in which totally average-looking people suddenly open up with automatic weapons in shopping malls and insurance offices and medical complexes and McDonald’ses is somehow causally related to the fact that these venues are well-known dissemination-loci of the Professional Smile?”

Wallace’s final, unfinished novel, The Pale King, contains similar discussions at the Internal Revenue Service at Peoria, Illinois. It can essentially be seen, among many other things, as a defence of the public sector against the encroachment of private capital. Concerned as the novel is with the themes of institutionalised boredom and depression, staff at the IRS often discuss the nature of the state:

“As citizens we cede more and more of our autonomy, but if we the government take away the citizens’ freedom to cede their autonomy we’re now taking away their autonomy. It’s a paradox. Citizens are constitutionally empowered to choose to default and leave the decisions to corporations and to a government we expect to control them. Corporations are getting better and better at seducing us into thinking the way they think – of profits as the telos and responsibility as something to be enshrined in symbol and evaded in reality. Cleverness as opposed to wisdom. Wanting and having instead of thinking and making. We cannot stop it. I suspect what’ll happen is that there will be some sort of disaster – depression, hyperinflation – and then it’ll be showtime: We’ll either wake up and retake our freedom or we’ll fall apart utterly. Like Rome – conqueror of its own people.”

Already in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men Wallace was critiquing the centrality of institutionalised boredom to service sector workers. One interview relates the story of a lavatory assistant who exists through his job only when witnessed and needed by the wealthy men who infrequently stop by: “Imagine not existing until a man needs you. Being there and yet not there. A willed translucence. Provisionally there, contingently there. The old saw Lives to serve”. In Infinite Jest, the corporate forms of seduction Wallace often discussed took the form of advertisements which do “what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase”. Yet when Lipsky implies that Wallace is making claims about state institutions and the media in his critiques of information overload, Wallace corrects him by saying “I’m not talking about the system, I’m talking about what it feels like to be alive”. This statement generalises: Wallace rarely attacked state capitalist institutions in his work, but rather focused on how they influence perceptions and emotional attachments, being something of an indirect, even reluctant radical.

One of the major themes of Infinite Jest is the need Wallace claimed most people have to connect to some sort of higher power, to give themselves away to something, or someone, in the service of self-fulfilment. Towards the end of the novel we find glimpses of an account by Hal Incandenza – the character most like Wallace – of his days at the Enfield Tennis Academy, with Wallace throughout the novel drawing some subtle, and some not-too-subtle, comparisons between drug addiction and the desperate need of top athletes and intellectuals to compete and over-perform:

“It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging into. Flight from exactly what?”

Similar reminders of disappointment arise early in The Pale King during an in-flight description of passing through clouds: “Wisps and flashes of uncolored cloud flashed past the window. Above and below were a different story, but there was always something disappointing about clouds when you were inside them; they ceased to be clouds at all. It just got really foggy”. The urge to “give oneself away, utterly” is also found elsewhere in the novel during a discussion of religion: “Fervent Christians are always remembering themselves as – and thus, by extension, judging everyone else outside their sect to be – lost and hopeless and just barely clinging to any kind of interior sense of value or reason to even go on living, before they were “saved.””

The Pale King. Flickr/Erasing Scott. Some rights reserved.

The Pale King. Flickr/Erasing Scott. Some rights reserved.

Irony, art and the “New Sincerity”

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Annie Dillard

The culture Wallace identifies in Infinite Jest as his object of study is modern consumerism and commercialism, with the novel exploring boredom, excessive consumption and a lack of certainty, spurred on by the political and financial class’s “obsessive weighing and measuring and projecting, this special calculus of thrust and growth”, as he put it in his essay on tennis and trigonometry. In Infinite Jest, this culture is associated not with childlike curiosity and innocence, but with the cynicism and irony and values of the corporate entertainment empire, along with the lack of emotional maturity it encourages in its young audiences:

“The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy. The worst-feeling thing that happened today was at lunch when Michael Pemulis told Mario he had an idea for setting up a Dial-a-Prayer telephone service for atheists in which the atheist dials the number and the line just rings and rings and no one answers. It was a joke and a good one and Mario got it; what was unpleasant was that Mario was the only one at the big table whose laugh was a happy laugh; everybody else sort of looked down like they were laughing at somebody with a disability.”

Mario’s brother, Hal, “who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin”. In one of the novel’s hundreds of endnotes, we learn that “one of Hal’s deepest and most pregnant abstractions” was “that we’re all lonely for something we don’t know we’re lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that he goes around feeling like he misses somebody he’s never met? Without the universalizing abstraction, the feeling would make no sense”.

The cynicism encountered by Mario and Hal at the tennis academy is also found, Wallace claims in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”, in the modern sitcom, which is “almost wholly dependent on laughs and tone on the M*A*S*H-inspired savaging of some buffoonish spokesman for hypocritical, pre-hip values at the hands of bitingly witty insurgents”. This framework permeates sitcoms so extensively that “just about the only authority figures who retain any credibility on post-’80s shows … are those upholders of values who can communicate some irony about themselves, make fun of themselves before any merciless Group around them can move in for the kill”. The average lonely American, called Joe Briefcase by Wallace, initially finds some level of enjoyment and satisfaction in television, but the grip of cynicism and irony is often strong:

“And to the extent that it can train viewers to laugh at characters’ unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art-form, television can reinforce its own queer ontology of appearance: the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naïveté. The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier. Joe B.’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier. But televisual irony has the solution: further viewing begins to seem almost like required research, lessons in the blank, bored, too-wise expression that Joe must learn how to wear for tomorrow’s excruciating ride on the brightly lit subway, where crowds of blank, bored-looking people have little to look at but each other.”

Foster Wallace biography. Flickr/Jim Forest. Some rights reserved.

Foster Wallace biography. Flickr/Jim Forest. Some rights reserved.As a backlash against this cynicism and the sexism of what he called the “Great Male Narcissists” (Roth, Mailer, Updike), along with the shallowness of postmodern writers like DeLillo and Easton Ellis, Wallace instead promoted what Adam Kelly would later call a “New Sincerity”. Wallace approvingly quotes Lewis Hyde’s suggestion that “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage”. Hyde went on to say that “People who have found a route to power based on their misery – who don’t want to give it up though it would free them – they become ironic”. Irony for Wallace “serves an almost exclusively negative function”, criticising but not proposing alternatives: “I find gifted ironists sort of wickedly fun to listen to at parties, but I always walk away feeling like I’ve had several radical surgical procedures”. He even suggests that this kind of behaviour is “oppressive” – ideas which lead him to more traditional areas of political criticism:

“Think, for a moment, of Third World rebels and coups. Third world rebels are great at exposing and overthrowing corrupt hypocritical regimes, but they seem noticeably less great at the mundane, non-negative task of then establishing a superior governing alternative. Victorious rebels, in fact, seem best at using their tough, cynical rebel-skills to avoid being rebelled against themselves – in other words, they just become better tyrants.”

Infinite Jest poses the question that “defining yourself in opposition to something is still being anaclitic on that thing, isn’t it? … [M]en who believe they hate what they really fear they need are of limited interest, I find”. Despite these insights, Wallace displays, with his usual confessional tone, something of a gross misunderstanding of anarchism: “I’m starting to see why turn-of-the-last-century Americans’ biggest fear was of anarchists and anarchy. For if anarchy actually wins, if rulelessness become[s] the rule, then protest and change become not just impossible but incoherent. It’d be like casting a ballot for Stalin: you are voting for an end to all voting”.

Nevertheless, while he plainly did not explicitly endorse anarchism as a political philosophy, his actual writings are steeped in the type of anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate communitarianism promoted by major strands of anarchism. For instance, his Harper’s essay “Ticket to the Fair” explores the common, underlying social and civic impulses behind idiosyncratically distinct forms of summer fairs from the East Coast to the Midwest, while he can frequently be found excoriating reactionaries for their prioritising of share indexes in The Pale King or noting in his essay on television and American fiction the “twin tired remedies for all U.S. ills” proposed by “conservative intellectuals”, “viz. the beliefs that (1) the discerning consumer-instincts of the Little Guy will correct all imbalances if only Big Systems will quit stifling his Freedom to Choose, and that (2) technology-bred problems can be resolved technologically”. In his famous cruise ship essay for Harper’s, Wallace condemned “that ur-American part of me that craves and responds to pampering and passive pleasure: the Dissatisfied Infant part of me, the part that always and indiscriminately WANTS”. Yet “the Infantile part of me is insatiable – in fact its whole essence or dasein or whatever lies in its a priori insatiability”.

Hints of Wallace’s concern for emotional and moral sincerity are also found in his essay on David Lynch, where he notes that in Lynch’s films the “very heavy Freudian riffs are powerful instead of ridiculous because they’re deployed Expressionistically, which among other things means they’re deployed in an old-fashioned, pre-postmodern way, i.e. nakedly, sincerely, without postmodernism’s abstraction or irony”. Along with intensely self-referential and detached cinema, Wallace also hated over-intellectualised literature which had “become involuted and forgotten the reader”, and thought that American poetry would only “come awake again when poets start speaking to people who have to pay the rent”. “I don’t think”, he told David Lipsky, “writers are any smarter than other people. I think they may be more compelling in their stupidity, or in their confusion”. Wallace told Salon in 1996 about Infinite Jest that “I think it makes at least an in-good-faith attempt to be fun and riveting enough on a page-by-page level so I don’t feel like I’m hitting the reader with a mallet, you know, “Hey, here’s this really hard impossibly smart thing. Fuck you. See if you can read it.” I know books like that and they piss me off”.

He concludes his Lynch essay that “the difference between experiencing art that succeeds as communication and art that doesn’t is rather like the difference between being sexually intimate with a person and watching that person masturbate”. Wallace also deconstructed the authority of self-absorbed metafiction writers in his outstanding “Octet”, since reading such material is “not going to make you look wise or secure or accomplished or any of the things readers usually want to pretend they believe the literary artist who wrote what they’re reading is when they sit down to try to escape the insoluble flux of themselves and enter a world of prearranged meaning”.

MV Zenith. Flickr/Gunnar Ries. Some rights reserved.

MV Zenith. Flickr/Gunnar Ries. Some rights reserved.The cynicism and irony Wallace critiqued bred, he argued, a special kind of self-consciousness and anxiety. Infinite Jest discusses how “99% of the head’s thinking activity consists of trying to scare the everliving shit out of itself.” These ideas stemmed from what Wallace called his “raped-by-psychic-Bedouins self-consciousness”. Wallace remained unsure, however, whether these tendencies are a cultural or universal phenomenon. Exploring the former possibility, the neurologist Grey Walter wrote in his 1963 Anarchy paper “The development and significance of cybernetics”:

“In comparing social with cerebral organisations one important feature of the brain should be kept in mind; we find no boss in the brain, no oligarchic ganglion or glandular Big Brother. Within our heads our very lives depend on equality of opportunity, on specialisation with versatility, on free communication and just restraint, a freedom without interference. Here too local minorities can and do control their own means of production and expression in free and equal intercourse with their neighbours. If we must identify biological and political systems our own brains would seem to illustrate the capacity and limitations of an anarcho-syndicalist community.”

A clear, if not widely known, example of this form of anarchist organisation in practice is the Pioneer Health Centre at Peckham, South London. It was established a few years before the Second World War by physicians who intended to study healthy, rather than abnormal, behaviour. Colin Ward recounts in Anarchy in Action that by agreeing to medical examinations, in return individuals would enter as “families into a social club and use various facilities, under no rules or constraints. There was initially chaos for the first eight months, but soon after, as Dr Scott Williamson, the founder, explained, “the chaos was reduced to an order in which groups of children could daily be seen swimming, skating, riding bicycles, using the gymnasium or playing some game, occasionally reading a book in the library … the running and screaming were things of the past.”” John Comerford concludes in his account of the Peckham experiment that “A society, therefore, if left to itself in suitable circumstances to express itself spontaneously works out its own salvation and achieves a harmony of actions which superimposed leadership cannot emulate”.

Wallace deeply sympathised with this anarchist urge to undermine and dismantle illegitimate forms of hierarchical authority, believing that the only legitimate conflicts were those internal to individuals. Consider Lane Dean’s depiction of his internal conflicts in The Pale King, with the martial metaphor reflecting Wallace’s views on the sources of war more generally:

“Lane Dean had never believed in hell as a lake of fire or a loving God consigning folks to a burning lake of fire – he knew in his heart this was not true. What he believed in was a living God of compassion and love and the possibility of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through whom this love was enacted in human time. But sitting here beside this girl as unknown to him now as outer space, waiting for whatever she might say to unfreeze him, now he felt like he could see the edge or outline of what a real vision of hell might be. It was of two great and terrible armies within himself, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victors. Or never a battle – the armies would stay like that, motionless, looking across at each other and seeing therein something so different and alien from themselves that they could not understand, they could not hear each other’s speech as even words or read anything from what their faces looked like, frozen like that, opposed and uncomprehending, for all human time.”

Towards the end of The Pale King, we find Meredith Rath relating her husband’s words to Shane Drinion, expressing a similar degree of deep insecurity and anxiety to that expressed in Infinite Jest:

My core problem, he said, and this connects to the core problem I told you about just now, was the neat little trap I’d made for myself to ensure that I never really had to grow up and so I could stay immature and waiting forever for somebody to save me because I’d never be able to find out that nobody else can save me because I’d made it impossible for me to get what I was so convinced I needed and deserved, so I could always be angry and I could always get to go around thinking that my real problem was that no one could see or love me the way I needed so I’d always have my problem to sit and hold and stroke on and make believe was the real problem.”

Charlie Kaufman’s 2008 film Synecdoche, New York contains a closely aligned monologue from a minister giving a sermon:

“And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.”

Just like “the way we all will look absently, mesmerized, into dozens of mirrors and opportune surfaces every day, both closely and absently, trying it seems to verify something that couldn’t even be described” (The Pale King), the final lines of Kaufman’s film describe the position of the central character, Caden Cotard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman), and his futile, life-long attempts to be saved and given away to something greater: “As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving – not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time”.

Oblivion. Flickr/Gary Ing. Some rights reserved.

Oblivion. Flickr/Gary Ing. Some rights reserved.Despite his aversion to the political and personal philosophies promoted by modern irony, Wallace puts it to good use throughout Infinite Jest, re-appropriating it for the purposes of his grand, Joycean, comic and democratic world vision: “Orin did a long impression of late pop-astronomer Carl Sagan expressing televisual awe at the cosmos’ scale. “Billions and billions,” he said. … “The universe:” – Orin continued long after the wit had worn thin – “cold, immense, incredibly universal.”” Like Joyce, Wallace combined comedy and sorrow in usually provocative ways. The novel contains some of the most carefully crafted comic lines of modern American literature: “Gately went both ways – fullback on offense, outside linebacker on D. He was big enough for the line, but his speed would have been wasted there. Already carrying 230 pounds and bench-pressing well over that, Gately clocked a 4.4 40 in 7th grade, and the legend is that the Beverly Middle School coach ran even faster than that into the locker room to jack off over the stopwatch”. On the well-worn phrase ‘Getting in touch with your feelings’, the novel comments that “A more abstract but truer epigram that White Flaggers with a lot of sober time sometimes change this to goes something like: “Don’t worry about getting in touch with your feelings, they’ll get in touch with you””. In fact “It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliché, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers”. 

The theme and political implications of family relations are also major concerns of Wallace’s. In Infinite Jest, the fatally entertaining film in the novel, called simply “the Entertainment”, also “features Madame Psychosis [a radio show host] as some kind of maternal instantiation of the archetypal figure Death, sitting naked, corporeally gorgeous, ravishing, hugely pregnant, her hideously deformed face either veiled or blanked out by undulating computer-generated squares of color or anamorphosized into unrecognizability as any kind of face by the camera’s apparently very strange and novel lens, sitting there nude, explaining in very simple childlike language to whomever the film’s camera represents that Death is always female, and that the female is always maternal. I.e. that the woman who kills you is always your next life’s mother”. Madame Psychosis is “explaining to the camera as audience-synecdoche that this was why mothers were so obsessively, consumingly, drivenly, and yet somehow narcissistically loving of you, their kid: the mothers are trying frantically to make amends for a murder neither of you quite remember”.

 Likewise, when Orin Incandenza (Hal and Mario’s elder brother) does an impression of his mother, Avril, “what he will do is assume an enormous warm and loving smile and move steadily toward you until he is in so close that his face is spread up flat against your own face and your breaths mingle. If you can get to experience it – the impression – which will seem worse to you: the smothering proximity, or the unimpeachable warmth and love with which it’s effected? For some reason now I am thinking of the sort of philanthropist who seems humanly repellent not in spite of his charity but because of it: on some level you can tell that he views the recipients of his charity not as persons so much as pieces of exercise equipment on which he can develop and demonstrate his own virtue. What’s creepy and repellent is that this sort of philanthropist clearly needs privation and suffering to continue, since it is his own virtue he prizes, instead of the ends to which the virtue is ostensibly directed”. Like Oscar Wilde, Wallace preferred not a charitable world, but one in which charity was unnecessary.

Avril is here placed in the same category as the “Great Lovers” from Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, who are peculiarly selfish in their inability to let their sexual partner reciprocate the pleasure they expertly induce in others: “[T]he catch is they’re selfish about being generous. They’re no better than the pig is, they’re just sneakier about it”. Throughout Hal’s infancy and childhood, he had also “continually been held and dandled and told at high volume that he was loved, and he feels like he could have told [his friend] K. Bain’s Inner Infant that getting held and told you were loved didn’t automatically seem like it rendered you emotionally whole or Substance-free. Hal finds he rather envies a man who feels he has something to explain his being fucked up, parents to blame it on”.

These personal, more intimate themes are also of interest when considering Wallace’s radicalism. He wrote that “It’s a well-known irony that Dostoevsky, whose work is famous for its compassion and moral rigor, was in many ways a prick in real life – vain, arrogant, spiteful, selfish”. As his biographer D. T. Max contends in Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, Wallace shared all of these traits. Dostoevsky also shared a sorrowful approach to political action, most notably in The Brothers Karamazov and Demons, but also in his 1877 short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. The narrator, considering suicide, falls into a vivid dream in which he arrives at a planet much like Earth after flying through space. The planet resembles an idyllic Greek island, and its inhabitants are sinless and blissful. The narrator explains that “on our earth we can only love with suffering and through suffering. We cannot love otherwise, and we know of no other sort of love. I want suffering in order to love. I long, I thirst, this very instant, to kiss with tears the earth that I have left, and I don’t want, I won’t accept life on any other!”

Bertrand Russell’s interpretation of Dostoevsky, in his 1945 History of Western Philosophy, that the Russian enjoyed sinning purely for the pleasure of forgiveness, does not find much place here. Dostoevsky did not ask for misery. He merely noted that without suffering the personal and political force of love can never be fully appreciated. The people of Dostoevsky’s twin earth “loved and begot children, but I never noticed in them the impulse of that cruel sensuality which overcomes almost every man on this earth, all and each, and is the source of almost every sin of mankind on earth”.

For Wallace, this cruel sensuality can only be overcome by a form of literature which is emotionally compelling, contributes to the combating of loneliness, and makes the reader less terrified of themselves and the political powers which surround them. Unlike the dour cynicism of his postmodern contemporaries, the uniqueness of Wallace lay in his willingness to embrace these traditional agendas, and to know which structures of psychological and political oppression to direct his attention at, defending a passionate and humane instinct over a hyper-intellectualised avant-garde formalism. 

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